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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Letters and Sounds

Letters are written, and sounds are spoken. It is important that these functions are not confused. When we write in normal spelling, we are using letters to convey sounds. In English this relationship is only ever a rough guide to pronunciation, and it is certainly not reliable.

In man and many, the letter a has two different pronunciations, and we can add three more in banana and bather. Then consider wasp, clasp, and asp. Among the more notorious examples of English spelling are cough, enough, thorough, through, bough. There are also words that sound identical but are written in different ways:

you yew ewe
sent scent cent
won one  
bare bear  

In our alphabet, we have only five vowel letters - A, E, I, O, U - but there are twenty different vowel sounds in New Zealand English.

This can be very inconvenient when we want to discuss sounds.

The ideal solution could be to adopt a method of spelling that is completely consistent, where a reader would know that a certain symbol would always refer to the same sound.

We will keep our use of technical symbols to a minimum. However, in cases where our alphabet is inadequate (as with the two th sounds, as in thin and then, or the sound at the end of sing) we will need to use phonemic symbols.

For example, small children sometimes substitute a "t" for the "k" sound at the end of the word "book". How would you write the resulting word in ordinary spelling?

Because of the influence of our spelling system, some people find it quite difficult to isolate the separate phonemes in some words. To identify phonemes, it is essential to forget about spelling and listen only to the sounds. For example, there are three phonemes in should and two in earth (unless you come from Southland, when there might be three). We do not usually pronounce the /r/ in horse, but we do pronounce a /j/ (as in yes) in human and Europe.

When students are first introduced to phonemic transcription, some will argue at length as to whether they pronounce the /d/ in Wednesday or whether there is /s/ or /z/ in Thursday.

The description and classification of speech sounds is the aim of the subject known as phonetics. Detailed information is not given here about phonetics because other sources are readily available in books and linguistics courses.

Vowels and Consonants

Two commonly used terms are vowels and consonants.

There are two different ways of defining these.

  1. Vowels and consonants can be defined by the way the sounds are produced.

    Consonants are made by a definite interference with the airstream by the vocal organs. Because of this, they are easier to describe than vowels.

    Vowels are made without any obstruction of the airstream. The air flows relatively unimpeded through the mouth or the nose. Differences in vowel sounds are made by different positions of the tongue and the lips.

  2. Vowels and consonants can be defined by the way the sounds are used in the language.

    Every syllable must have a vowel. Where the syllable is closed (see below), the vowels always occur at the centre of the syllables.

Consonants occur at the margins of the syllables.

CVC: dog, rat, map, puff, sit

CCCVCCC: strengths

In Maori, the structure of the syllable is different. The pattern is (C)V.

This is called an open syllable.

All Maori syllables are open, whereas English has both open syllables and closed syllables (those that end in a consonant).

English po lice man
  open closed closed
Maori pi ri hi ma nga
  open open open open open

It is important for speakers, especially foreign learners of English, to pronounce their consonants properly. Consonants contribute more to making English understood than vowels do. They are like the skeletons of words, giving them their basic shape. Wherever English is spoken, the consonants are produced in much the same way. Speakers of English from different parts of Britain or from different English-speaking countries have different accents, but these are the result of differences in vowel sounds. In practice, we can tolerate a considerable amount of variation with vowels and still understand what is being said. If foreign learners of English have problems with their vowels, they have less difficulty than if they have problems with their consonants. In the latter case, they are likely to be misunderstood, or not understood at all.

Where the sound of a vowel remains constant throughout, it is sometimes called a pure vowel.


In pronouncing some vowels, the tongue or lips move from one position to another. This change is sometimes called a glide, and the technical name for these vowels is diphthongs. The change is very smooth, and so diphthongs sound like single long vowels rather than like two vowels. Diphthongs are described with two letters or symbols:

/ai/ /ei/ /o/ /a/ /i/

I say go now boy

/e/ /i/ //

air ear cure

The diphthongs in I say go now were the earliest sounds to be commented on when the New Zealand accent was first noted. These sounds can carry a great deal of information about social class. Some New Zealanders now pronounce as diphthongs words that used to have pure vowels. We can say that these vowels are being diphthongised.

This change can be heard in some New Zealand speakers’ pronunciation of the vowels in such words as:

  • beat, bead, seat, seed, which sound a little like bait, bade, and so on
  • boot, mood, shoe, two, which sound a little like boat, mode, show, and so on.

The words in these examples are very clearly diphthongs in Australian English.

We also sometimes hear a diphthong in the New Zealand pronunciation of yes, which is lengthened to yee-iss.

For many New Zealanders, the phonemes in ear and air are merging - for some, the merger moves to air, but for many more, it moves to ear. It is likely that in the future, there will be only one phoneme box where we now have two.

Another merger in New Zealand English can be seen with words like poor, sure, tour, tourist, cure, dour. Some people will pronounce these with //, as in the word sewer. Many now say these with the pronunciation //, which is the sound in door and floor.

The merging of phonemes has been a continual process throughout the history of the English language. Five hundred years ago, the pairs of words sea and see, meat and meet had different pronunciations, but over time they have merged and now sound the same. Sometimes pronunciations diverge. For many New Zealanders, these pairs of words sound the same:

  • grown groan
  • thrown throne
  • mown moan

However, an increasing number of New Zealanders pronounce grown, thrown, mown, known with two syllables, and groan, throne, moan, loan with one syllable.

Writing Maori

The Maori language has a number of phonemes that are different from those of English. Early missionaries and the Maori who worked with them to devise an orthography, or writing system, had to decide how to write Maori sounds using an English alphabet - in other words, they needed to decide which English phoneme boxes were closest to the Maori sounds. Early maps show Kerikeri written as Kedi Kedi, Kidi Kidi, or Kiddee Kiddee. The sound at the beginning of Whangarei is not a sound that occurs in English. For some tribes, it is like "w", and for others, it is like "f", which is why non-Maori can be confused about its pronunciation.

The problems of English speakers writing Maori were recognised by an early commentator, Edward Jerningham Wakefield.

[...] many of our sounds such as f, s, v, j, l, g, ch, sh, th are not in the native language, and offer considerable difficulty to a Maori; and others which do exist such as d and b, have been banished by the missionaries, and included under our r and p. The Maori for "angry" for instance, is distinctly pronounced ridi by most natives: the missionaries, however, disclaim the d, and write it riri. A "hill" is certainly buke - the missionaries write it puke.

E. J. Wakefield: Adventure in New Zealand, 1845

Non-Maori speakers of English find it difficult to distinguish between the Maori diphthong spelled "ai" (as in Waikato) and the one spelled "ae" (as in turangawaewae). They tend to pronounce both of these like the English diphthong in "why". The same goes for the Maori "ao" and "au" diphthongs (as in Maori and mauri), which both tend to be equated with the English diphthong as in how.

As we get older, we become more dominated by our own "phoneme boxes", and it becomes harder for us to pronounce the phonemes of other languages. Young children are readily able to accurately produce the phonemes of other languages, and they learn them with ease and fluency, whereas their highly motivated elders can produce only crude approximations. For this reason, the earlier that children learn a second oral language the better. The great strength of the Kohanga Reo movement is that young children can develop a fluent pronunciation of Maori, something that will become more difficult as they get older. In New Zealand, most second language learning in schools occurs at secondary level, too late for the time when children can most easily develop pronunciation skills in other languages.


The way sounds are brought together into syllables is controlled by rules within each language, and the number of possible consonant and vowel combinations in syllables varies greatly from language to language. In Hawaiian, there are 162 possible syllables; in Thai, there are 23 638.

In the English that Alfred the Great would have spoken, it was possible to begin a word with hl - the word for lord was hlaford. Now, this is no longer a possible combination of English sounds.

The sound at the end of sing -//- cannot begin an English syllable, but in Maori, it can occur at the beginning of a syllable. English speakers therefore find it very hard to pronounce such words as ngaio, Ngaire, Ngauruhoe, ngata as they would be pronounced in Maori. They use their nearest phoneme box, which is /n/.

Nonsense words can be invented that sound "English" because they follow the phoneme-combining rules of English. Some examples are:

plog, crint, fendle, demp, spack.

In Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky", nonsense words like slithy, gimble, and toves sound like English, whereas brillig sounds foreign.

Sound Symbolism

The ancient Greeks debated whether sounds were just arbitrary or had some intrinsic meaning. Some believed that there was a natural connection between the sounds of words and their referents, so that everything had its true name. The search for these true meanings involved looking for the origins or roots (etyma) of words and was the first etymological study.

This ancient view can still be heard today when people say things like "She looked just like a Lucy", or "He was definitely an Andrew", as if there were some kind of connection between the sound of the name and the person. When young children are asked why that animal is called a "dog", they will probably reply, "Because it is a dog."

Today, it is widely accepted that sounds themselves do not have meanings. However, one group of sounds does seem to have a closer connection to things in the physical world. This phenomenon is known as sound symbolism.

One example of sound symbolism is found in a group of words that attempts to replicate certain sounds. These are known as onomatopoeic words. In English, we have words like woof-woof, or bow wow, tweet-tweet, and cock-a-doodle doo. However, these words are still the creation of the human mind, and in this case, of the English human mind. Animals in other languages make different noises:

 German rooster: kikeriki

 French dog: tou tou.

Another group of words is known as phonaesthetic words. These are not onomatopoeic, but they are associated with certain meanings. Examples in English are slippery, slimy, sluggish, sloppy, slithery, sleazy, and so on. It seems that the initial sl- sound gives these words their unpleasant connotations. When Lewis Carroll coined the nonsense word slithy in the poem "Jabberwocky", English speakers associated it with something slippery and unpleasant. This word took on this particular meaning by association with the number of other words beginning with sl- that have similar connotations. However, there are other sl- words, like sleep, slave, slat, and slogan, that do not have those connotations.

Other examples of phonaesthetic words are those with the final -sh //, such as crash, smash, lash, splash, and crush; and those with a final -k, such as crack, whack, flick, and smack.

Children's writers make use of onomatopoeic and phonaesthetic words to good effect.


 Down slupps the Whisper-ma-Phone to your ear

 and the old Once-ler's whispers are not very clear,

 since they have to come down

 through a snergelly hose,

 and he sounds

 as if he had

 smallish bees up his nose.

Dr Seuss: The Lorax

Some languages, including Korean and Japanese, have a very large vocabulary of onomatopoeic and phonaesthetic words. Compared with them, English has only a few.

Sounds Used for Special Effects

In poetry, sounds can be used deliberately to achieve certain effects. One way is to repeat a vowel or a consonant so that words or phrases are linked together in sound.

The repetition of consonants, especially the initial consonant, is known as alliteration.

The wild wet Wellington wind

Joy Cowley: The Wild Wet Wellington Wind

(Wellington: Department of Education, 1986)

Where a vowel is repeated, it is known as assonance. In this example, the vowels in sights, hill, and plain are repeated:

All of the sights of the hill and the plain

Fly as thick as the driving rain;

And ever again, in the wink of an eye,

Painted stations whistle by.

R. L. Stevenson: "From a Railway Carriage"

In the following example, the vowels in Sam and like are repeated. The words themselves are also repeated. This is sometimes called assonance and sometimes repetition.

That Sam-I-am!

That Sam-I-am!

I do not like

That Sam-I-am!

Dr Seuss: Green Eggs and Ham

The repetition of the last vowel and all the speech sounds following it is called rhyme.

We are very little creatures,

All of different voice and features;

One of us in glass is set,

One of us you'll find in jet.

T'other you may see in tin,

And the fourth a box within.

If the fifth you should pursue,

It can never fly from you.

Jonathan Swift: "AEIOU"

Making Sense of It All

The sounds of any language are very important, but when we listen to speech, we also get a great deal of information from the context.

Some New Zealanders feel anxious about the ear/air merger, thinking that those who do not distinguish between these sounds will not be understood. However, there are very few cases where these words would be ambiguous in use. Listeners would hardly be likely to confuse beer and bear or cheer and chair when they hear them in sentences any more than other homonyms, such as won and one, would confuse them.

Although some sound contrasts are lost, other new ones appear. For example, Old English, as spoken around AD 1000, did not have the contrast that we hear today in pairs like wafer and waiver, looser and loser. We have already mentioned the contrast some New Zealand speakers make between pairs like grown and groan, thrown and throne.

We also get information from the syntax and conventions of language.

  • The man were coming.

Because of the form of the verb, this is likely to be heard as:

The men were coming.

  • I've lost my dlove.

The rules in English for combining phonemes will not allow d + l. The listener therefore instinctively makes sense of this by finding something that will fit the sentence:

I've lost my glove.

We do not need every vowel and every consonant to be perfectly articulated for us to understand what is being said. People are often able to pick up other people's conversations in next door rooms or in noisy airport lounges. Young children are very good at trying to make sense of what they hear. Their attempts, which draw on their own experience of vocabulary, can be the occasion of adult amusement.

Our Father which art in Heaven, Harold be thy name.

The kettle was blowing, the baby awakes

But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

So far, we have looked at the segments of spoken language. There are rules in English that enable us to combine phonemes into syllables and syllables into words, linking the segmental aspects of speech.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009